Thursday, March 21, 2013

Nozick's Experience Machine

**This is from guest blogger, David C.**

Robert Nozick seems to be making two points with his thought experiment of the experience machine. The first point is to negatively refute Hedonism. The second is a positive point, which argues that people put intrinsic value on “really doing”, “really being” and to “live ourselves, in contact with reality”. I think that Nozick’s first point relies on an invalid argument, while his second point has a lot of ambiguity, which raises more problems then it actually solves.

Nozick’s first point of refuting Hedonism would rely on an argument somewhat along these lines:

1.      If Hedonism is true then the only thing that people should care about is maximize happiness (pleasure).
2.      Defined by the set up of the thought experiment, entering the experience machine would maximize one’s happiness (pleasure).
3.      If one only cares about maximizing one’s happiness (pleasure) one would enter the experience machine.
4.      Plenty of people choice not to enter the experience machine.
5.      For plenty of people, it is not the case that they only care about maximizing their happiness (pleasure).
6.      Hedonism is false.

There are several problems with this argument.

This first problem is that the conclusion (6.) “Hedonism is false” does not validly follow from the premises. Although it seems that premise (1.) and premise (5.) would lead to (6.), but this is logically invalid. The reason is that the key claim in premise (1.), the Hedonism claim that “the only thing that people should care about is maximize happiness (pleasure)”, is a prescriptive claim, not a descriptive claim. It is a claim that suggests what people “should” care about, not a claim that purports to accurately describe what people “actually” care about. What people “actually” care about cannot prove or disprove the prescriptive claim. It is totally consistent that “I actually care about A”, but “I should care about B”, for maybe I’m just being irrational. Thus, premise (5.), which describes what people actually care about, cannot be sufficient to falsify Hedonism. In order to refute this prescriptive claim of Hedonism, we would need an argument that proves: one should not only care about maximizing happiness (pleasure).

Maybe Nozick’s second point, which is positive, does try to argument for why people “should not” enter the experience machine. If Nozick’s second point does prove this point, then he would have a good argument of refuting Hedonism. I will address his second point later. But nonetheless, if my argument in the above paragraph is correct, Nozick’s argument would, at least, loss some power. Much of Nozick’s power of proof comes from people’s intuitive approval of premise (4.), which states: “Plenty of people choice not to enter the experience machine”. But if I am right in pointing out the invalidness of the argument, then I have prove premise (4.) does not contribute to refuting Hedonism. Hence, the most powerful premise in this argument would be useless.

Of course, some may think that Hedonism is not just a prescriptive claim, and that Nozick’s argument has successfully proven that the descriptive claims of Hedonism is false. Surely, if we change the key claim in premise (1.) into a descriptive claim, which would be something like: “If Hedonism is true then the only thing that people would care about is maximize happiness (pleasure)”, the argument above would become a valid argument. But does that mean this argument has successfully proven the descriptive claims of Hedonism to be false? No, because there are still other problems in this argument.

Another problem for this argument is that premise (3.) does not follow from premise (2.). This may seem counter-intuitive at first, but it is perfectly constant that one may only care about maximizing one’s happiness (pleasure) but choices not to enter the experience machine. How can this be? Since the experience machine is, by definition, a happiness (pleasure) maximizer.

It can be possible and consistent because the experience machine can only promise to be a happiness (pleasure) maximizer after you enter the machine in the future. But you are making the choice of whether to enter the machine at the present moment. This can make a huge difference because since you are making the choice at the present moment, you are making judgment based on the happiness (pleasure) maximizing calculation at the present moment, not after you enter the machine in the future (or the two combined). A machine that promise to maximize your happiness (pleasure) in the future does not promise to maximize your happiness (pleasure) at this present moment (or the two combined). And if it does not maximize your happiness (pleasure) at this present moment (or the two combined), it is perfectly consistent that you choice not to enter it.

What I just said would probably sound quite confusing. So let me clarify two points:

1. How could the machine be a happiness (pleasure) maximizer after you enter the machine in the future, but not so at the present moment? The answer is that one might put a huge amount of happiness (pleasure) in knowing and believing he is living in the “real world”. Therefore, this would make a huge difference for him, because after he enters the machine he will not know he is in it, and thus the huge amount of happiness (pleasure) in knowing and believing he is living in the “real world” is satisfied. But at the present moment, while he has not yet entered the machine, he knows the world will be a “fake world”, and thus the huge amount of happiness (pleasure) in knowing and believing he is living in the “real world” is not satisfied.

2. Wouldn’t the dissatisfaction of “knowing the ugly truth” only last for a very short time, and therefore would bond to be overweighed by the “happiness (pleasure) maximized” rest of your life in the machine? There are two ways of replying to this doubt. One is by arguing that people just put much more weight on the present happiness (pleasure) than the future happiness (pleasure) when making decisions. The other is by arguing that people just put a really huge amount of happiness (pleasure) in knowing and believing he is living in the “real world”. So much that even a tinny time of dissatisfaction caused by its truth would overweight a whole lifetime of ignorant happiness.

I think Nozick would actually agree with the second way of replying. For his positive point is just to argue that people value “really doing”, “really being” and living in the “real world” so much that there are actually intrinsic value in them. But I think this positive point of his has a lot of ambiguity, and raises more problems then it actually solves. I will talk about it later in the post.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Nozick's Experience Machine

**This is from guest blogger, Claire S.**

So, here’s how my thinking on the experience machine goes:  At first I as thinking, well, maybe I desire something other than pleasure, like I value the parts of my life where I feel bored or lonely (just say) and so I don’t desire a life that is purely pleasurable. Someone could say, well, this is not a problem for the machine because the machine can give you the perfect amount of loneliness or boredom fit to your exact desires. So then I started thinking, well, say that I find my life exactly as it is to be the most desirable, valuable life I can imagine. This being the case, when I get into the machine, my life there is exactly the same as my life outside the machine (the way my life is is perfectly tailored to my desires). This being the case, given the choice of living out a life in the real world versus one in the machine, I cannot imagine anyone choosing the life in the machine over the real world, given that they are the same. But then must there be a difference that makes me choose the real world? Perhaps the difference is in part that it is real and not an illusion. What do you guys think? Does this somehow get at something other than pleasure being valuable?

Mill and Hedonism

**This is from guest blogger, Talia.**

John Stuart Mill promotes the idea that the rightness of actions depends on their ability to promote happiness, i.e. pleasure, and that all desirable things are sought out as a means to some pleasurable ends. He distinguished between two types of pleasures in order to support his view against possible objectors: pleasures of the body and pleasures of the mind. The former are those which even animals are capable of acquiring, i.e. satisfaction from food, sexual pleasures, while the later are those experienced by human beings, i.e. intellectual stimulation, use of the imagination. Mill prioritizes mental pleasures over bodily pleasures due to their "circumstantial advantages", i.e. permanence, safety, affordability, and tendency to be preferred by those who have adequate experience with both types of pleasures.

After reading through the article, a few questions/concerns came to mind: first, in our quest for happiness, must we necessarily seek pleasure? I'd be curious to hear other's opinions about possible alternative definitions for happiness. Additionally, is Mill promoting short or long term pleasure? There are cases in which we accept pain over pleasure in order to produce the best long-term outcome, i.e. breaking up with a boyfriend/girlfriend before college because it will be too hard to maintain the relationship. Some actions might initially bring about pleasure or pain, with the other sensation on the horizon. How do we prioritize which pleasure - short vs long term - to prioritize? And relatedly, how do we quantify both of these feelings? I find it difficult to personally measure the relative happiness or pleasure/pain a certain action will bring, let alone do so for all actions across all individuals. Finally, Mill's general categorization of mental pleasure being more desirable/valuable than bodily pleasures applies on a larger scale, but what about in individual cases? Yes, for the most part, everyone would agree on the pleasure brought about by most actions, but it seems that Mill is completely disregarding individual preferences. What if someone finds pleasure through something that causes most other people pain? Thoughts?

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Is Beauty Intrinsically Valuable?

**This is from guest blogger, Nathan T.**

Yesterday in class, we considered John Stuart Mill’s hedonism, in which he maintains that pleasure is the only intrinsic good. I proposed that beauty (as well as truth) might also be an intrinsic good, and I wanted to flesh out some of my thoughts on that subject.

Intuitively, I consider some things to be beautiful and not pleasurable. For instance, when I read “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” or nearly any Russian author, I am really uncomfortable and on edge, inevitably leaving the book or play with the feeling that the world is terrible. And yet, there’s something still terribly beautiful about the way these authors portray the world.

I think there are two ways of explaining this idea. One simply reads this situation into the context of Mill’s philosophy, that in some strange sense, I actually enjoy feeling terrible, like a masochist. Perhaps this fascination is similar to horror movies, in which we, for some bizarre reason, enjoy being scared and uncomfortable. However, this still seems to misrepresent the situation somewhat, in that I frequently finish one of these works of literature and say, “I hated that, I never want to read it again, and yet it was good.” Maybe I just have weird sensibilities, but it seems like the aesthetic experience I have of these works are different than most other pleasures I have. I think a good Millian response is to take a position like Michael’s which defines pleasure more broadly as “positive mental states,” which include states like mental peace and meditation, which are not inherently “pleasurable.” Maybe aesthetic experience is like this.

I don’t think it is. (As we've seen, it’s dangerous to rely on intuitions, but here I stand!) I have a particular notion of beauty in that art (something that has beauty) expresses a truth about the human experience in a manner that the viewer/perceiver discovers that truth for themselves. It is the perception of this truth that makes it a good (or valuable) experience. When I experience conviction or the broader realization that the world is not a good place, I feel really crappy but am also satisfied that I now know the world better; it seems bizarre, though, to say that it is good because it gives me this small degree of satisfaction (compared to feeling terrible for the rest of the day).

Those are my thoughts- what do you think?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Mill, Hedonism, and so-called Higher Pleasures

**This is from guest blogger, Nathan V.**

In "Utiliarianism," Mill argues that some pleasures are more valuable than others. He says this relationship can be determined by people who are "equally capable of appreciating and enjoying both." He further argues that pleasures that make use of one's higher faculties are more valuable than those that make use of one's more base faculties. Mill says that someone who makes use of their higher faculties is in a better position than someone who doesn't to make qualitative judgments about various pleasures. This is because he is able to experience higher pleasures as well as more base pleasures whereas someone who doesn't make use of their higher faculties is only able to experience base pleasures and is therefore not in a position to make such judgments.

One issue with his view seems to be that only those who subscribe to the idea that pleasures obtained through the use of one's higher faculties are better and more worth pursuing than those obtained through the use of one's more base faculties are said to be capable of making such judgments. What is to be made of those who after tasting the higher pleasures choose instead to pursue the more base pleasures? An example of this that I thought of while reading Mill is the episode of the Simpsons where Homer gets the crayon that has been lodged in his brain since childhood removed. After the crayon is removed Homer becomes a genius, but by the end of the episode he has it placed back into his brain as he has decided that he was happier when he was stupid. In this case, it seems that the pleasure Homer experiences from not accessing his higher faculties is more valuable than the pleasure he experienced when he was accessing them. While Mills would first seem to directly oppose this idea saying, "no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool," he later says that if someone did consent to be a fool, it would occur "only in cases of unhappiness so extreme that, to escape from it, they would exchange their lot for almost any other, however undesirable in their own eyes." In this case, the choice to be a fool would seem to lead more pleasure and therefore be more valuable than remaining intelligent.

Mill’s way out of this seeming contradiction is to define a being of higher faculties as someone who could never lower themselves to a more base existence out of a sense of dignity. Mill says, somewhat circularly, that dignity is an essential part of happiness to people who have a strong sense of dignity. While he then goes on to describe ways in which a being of higher faculties may pursue more base pleasures to the exclusion of higher pleasures due to things like temptation, habit, and "infirmity of character," he rejects the idea that these should be considered valid judgments of what type of pleasure is more valuable. Mill seems to believe that the only people capable of judging the qualitative value of various pleasures are those who judge the pleasures that result from one's higher faculties as being better than those that result from one's more base faculties.argues that some pleasures are more valuable than others. He says this relationship can be determined by people who are "equally capable of appreciating and enjoying both." He further argues that pleasures that make use of one's higher faculties are more valuable than those that make use of one's more base faculties. Mill says that someone who makes use of their higher faculties is in a better position than someone who doesn't to make qualitative judgments about various pleasures. This is because he is able to experience higher pleasures as well as more base pleasures whereas someone who doesn't make use of their higher faculties is only able to experience base pleasures and is therefore not in a position to make such judgments.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A Critique of Rachels' Argument Against Ethical Egoism

**This is from guest blogger, William P.**

In his essay “Ethical Egoism,” James Rachels even-handedly considers several arguments for and against Ethical Egoism (the moral position that one only ought to do what is in one’s best interests) before concluding that only his own argument against Ethical Egoism is fully sound. His argument hinges on the idea that “there is no general difference between oneself and others, to which each person can appeal, that justifies [a] difference in treatment.” I’m not sure if this is tenable. There is an obvious difference between the epistemic access which one has with regard to oneself and that which one has with regard to others: specifically, one knows (or is at least much more likely to know) one’s own interests better than others’ (which Rachels actually mentions earlier, in a different context) and one has a different experience of one’s own actions or the impact of one’s own actions depending on if they are in one’s interest or in another’s interest. In other words, one can viscerally feel the benefits of actions that are in one’s interest, whereas one can only infer about the impact of one’s actions that are in others’ interest, which Rachels seems to recognize when he writes about relatively affluent people being “effectively insulated” from the suffering and death of starving children in poor countries. Under these considerations the pertinent question is not “Does hunger affect them any less?” as Rachels asks, but “Can I feel their hunger like I feel my own hunger?” or “Would my own benefit from my money be more greatly appreciated by me than their benefit would be?” All of which is to say that there do seem to be general differences that could justify differences in treatment. Rachels seems to suppose that such a difference in epistemic access is negligible in extreme cases when well-known universal human needs are at stake, which may actually be the case; however, in other, less extreme cases these differences create ambiguities that make it difficult to recognize the correct course of action. None of this is meant to say that I’m in favor of Ethical Egoism; I just see possible issues in Rachels’ counterargument.

Since Rachels also considers Randian Ethical Egoism specifically (which he describes as mischaracterizing altruism as something that necessarily puts the interests of others above one’s own), and given the current political climate of this country (where some equate Randian ethics with a moral mandate for a market without government regulation and an end to government subsidies), I wondered what Rachels’ argument would have to say about living in (and perhaps being complicit in) a capitalist country that necessarily creates and perpetuates inequality, which he might call “unacceptably arbitrary.” Would such an economic system necessarily be immoral in his view, rather than just amoral, as it’s often described? I’m really not entirely sure if Rachels’ moral doctrine of equality conflicts with economic doctrines – I want to hear what other people think.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Rachels and Ethical Egoism

**This is from guest blogger, Daniel W.**

James Rachels describes the ethical theory of selfishness, Ethical Egoism, in his piece titled Ethical Egoism. Rachels opens with a preview of the common sense view of morality, which entails “natural” duties to others simply because they are “people who could be helped or harmed by our actions”. Ethical Egoism rejects this ‘common sense’ assumption about morality. The heart of the ethical egoist doctrine alleges that we ought to behave in a manner which pursues our own self interest—an end which should be sought in all circumstances regardless of the means used to achieve said goal. Rachels notes that given the central egoist tenet, it does not necessarily follow that one ought to avoid actions which promote the interests of others, nor does it claim that one should always do what one desires; on the contrary, one should resist acting upon a desire if the action does not benefit an individual in the long run. One ought to act in self-interest; that is the simple, parsimonious rule. Although Rachels ferries his audience through several arguments which support Ethical Egoism, he concludes his essay with three arguments that refute the cogency of egoism, hence destabilizing its validity as a moral system that we should adopt.

My objective is to discuss the final argument which Rachels believes is the strongest refutation of Ethical Egoism. In the prior arguments (supporting and refuting Ethical Egoism), I feel that Rachels does a wonderful job of presenting the argument and describing the counter arguments which might follow close behind. However, the closing argument is taken to be true without any consideration for a refutation. The argument that Rachels pieces together is as follows:

(1)     Any moral doctrine that assigns greater importance to the interests of one group than to those of another is unacceptably arbitrary  unless there is some difference between the members of the groups that justifies treating them differently.
(2)     Ethical Egoism would have each person assign greater importance to his or her own interests than to the interests of others. But there is no general difference between oneself and others, to which each person can appeal, that justifies this difference in treatment.
(3)     Therefore, Ethical Egoism is unacceptably arbitrary.

While I personally agree with the conclusion, I think it is important to explore potential pitfalls or problems associated with it. I think the staunch supporter of Ethical Egoism might respond to this argument with a rebuttal that targets premise (2). Particularly, the ethical egoist might raise objection to the sub-premise that there is “no general difference between oneself and others to which each person can appeal.” I feel that the objection would sound similar to a principle echoed in Ayn Rand’s argument—namely, that “we must agree that [our] life is of supreme importance” since it is “all one has, and all one is.” By making this assumption, one could allege that each of us does in fact have a difference with which we can isolate ourselves away from “everyone else”—in terms of our own moral standing. The difference would be that each of us is “supremely important” to ourselves. However, this seems almost instantly open to further refutation.
How does one decide what is supremely important? Ayn Rand’s argument seems to suggest that it is justified to intuit our self-supremacy because “[our life] is all we have” and “[our life] is all we are”. So, the claim to self-supremacy is anchored in an intuition and a vaguely defined argument of the following sort:

(1)     Ownership of one thing, A, makes A superior to all other things of the same species which are not owned by a person.
(2)     We have ‘ownership’ of only one life—namely, our own life.
(3)     Therefore, each person’s own life is superior to all other instances of life.

This argument seems valid (granted this is what Rand was attempting to explicate), however it can hardly be called sound. It would be hard to accept premise (i), since we often do not associate our ‘owning something’ as an antecedent for some consequent that the ‘owned thing is superior’ to other things to which the ‘owned thing’ is identical. Suppose we have a dog, and our neighbor walks by and says his dog is superior because he owns it, we would shake our heads and—with clear rational minds—tell him that he is being sentimental and biased. They are both dogs after all. In this way, it seems odd to state that ‘ownership’ of something makes it ontologically better than other copies of that thing; we’d say any perceived superiority is a product of our bias towards what we own and rooted in our emotional sentiment for things of which we have direct experience.

Isn’t it fair to say that life is identical to all other life? It involves the same underlying necessary components: ability to interact (or have experience) with environment, composed of cellular material, ability to procreate, etc. Though the subjective experience of life might differ (among humans, or even outside of the Homo sapien species), we still say things are alive—thus, having life—in the same manner of speaking. Since there are certain fundamental similarities which we use to assess life, every life is identical in these fundamental ways, and thus premise (i) cannot be true, since it would be a absurd to assert that something is better than another identical thing. This echoes Rachels’ argument that there is still no unambiguous criterion available to differentiate life at its core essence.

In response, the ethical egoist might put more emphasis on the claim that “our life is all we are, and thus it is superior to other lives.” This seems to be an argument which argues that things which we experience are more important than those experienced by other people. The ethical egoist might argue that our subjective experience trumps all, and yet this seems an impossible claim to make, given our subjective position from which we have to make such an evaluation. The following argument seems appropriate to prove this point:

(1)     We can make an accurate evaluative claim, if and only if we have knowledge of two things being evaluated.
(2)     We only have knowledge of our own subjective experience (i.e., one thing).
(3)     To say something is “superior” to something is an evaluative claim.
(4)     Thus, we cannot accurately say that our subjective experience is “superior” to another person’s subjective experience.

If this argument is sound (which it may very well not be), then the ethical egoist seems to have less justification for not supporting the original premise (2). While the ethical egoist is claiming self-supremacy from their own subjective experience—in an irrational manner—the only way to make an evaluative claim is from some type of veil of objectivity. If we remove ourselves to a position of “god-like” omniscience and objectively view people in the world, wouldn’t it be impossible to differentiate humans from one another and demarcate them into unambiguous groups for individualized moral judgment? Maybe this is too hypothetical, but I like it, and I think this is what Rachels is after at the end of the day. While Rachels used the moral system of racism to exemplify his argument against Ethical Egoism, perhaps these supportive arguments could buttress his position against further egoist rebuttals that he does not entertain in his essay. Do people think that these help serve Rachels’ final argument? Specifically, are there other ways to respond to the ethical egoist who tries to argue against premise (2)? Are there other points of contention that I may be missing in that final argument? This is shaping up to be the general subject matter for my second paper, and I’d be curious to hear all ideas and refutations!

Friday, March 8, 2013

Feinberg and Psychological Egoism

**This is from guest blogger, Cassy.**

In a nutshell, Feinberg's argument is that "the only thing anyone is capable of desiring or pursuing ultimately (as an end in itself) is his own self-interest." Pretty straight-forward, but also a pretty heavy statement. At first, I'm inclined to think that there are plenty of things I do just because I want to be nice. For instance, I am really into random acts of kindness. I don't know how to explain this, except to say that I am known for tearing up nearly every time I see strangers do nice things for other strangers. I try to do or say at least one random nice thing for someone every day, or at least whenever I remember that this is the kind of person I aspire to be. I think that's where the message lies here. Of course, given my extreme sentimentality toward such acts, I would like to say that random acts of kindness are purely altruistic. For instance, what reason did I have to hold the door open for someone this morning? I would argue that it certainly wasn't required of me, and the person behind me was just out of the "this might actually be an awkwardly long wait to hold this door for this person" range (we've all been there).

But bear with me while I break down my thought process at the time. At first, I think there is someone behind me and so I should hold it for them because that is the nice thing to do. Then, I recognize that they're not quite within "hold the door open" range. Then I think "to hell with it, it's the nice thing to do" and so I wait. In dissecting my own seemingly altruistic action, I've already said several things that make me wonder if it's purely selfless, namely "it's the nice thing to do." I personally have a very strong desire to be nice just because I can. It isn't because I'm hoping karma catches onto my good deeds and deals me a good hand in the future; it's because it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy to do nice things for people. I'm human, after all, and sometimes I like to do nice things for strangers just as I like to do nice things for my friends and family. In part, it's because I want to impact that person's day and I would like to say that that is the main motivation. However, I think merely the fact that I said "I want to..." implies that it is, at least in part, something I do out of self-interest.

This leads me to another thought, though. I think Feinberg needs to better define what he means by "selfish" and "self-interest" because to me, these two words have different connotations. I tend to agree with his argument, but even I would like this to be defined a bit more. I'm inclined to prefer "self-interest" rather than "selfishness" because the latter has a negative connotation but I don't necessarily think it needs to be negative. Just because I'm acting somewhat in self-interest when I do nice things for strangers, doesn't mean it isn't still a nice thing to do. And furthermore, I think it's interesting to note from an evolutionary standpoint (since we're talking psychology here) that pure altruism without acting with any self-interest would really be self-defeating. From this perspective, acting in self-interest isn't just natural, it's necessary. So might be altruism at times, but not without it ultimately being out of self-interest. Sort of an afterthought, but just something interesting I thought about.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Joel Feinberg: Psychological Egoism

**This is from guest blogger, Michael Dean**

Psychological Egoism is the position that the ultimate motive of all actions is selfish. It is not the position that everyone should be motivated by selfish desires, but rather that they are motivated by selfish desires. This is supposed to be a psychological fact of human motivations. Joel Feinberg presents a multitude of arguments against psychological egoistic hedonism. Of particular interest to me is the “Paradox of Hedonism.” As Feinberg states, “an exclusive desire for happiness is the surest way to prevent happiness from coming into being.” This is the paradox, one cannot be happy by seeking happiness alone. Something besides happiness must be the means to that end. This is analogous to the tennis player who only enjoys tennis when she wins. Her desire to win makes her anxious during her matches, and thus she does not play well and loses. The only way for her to win is to relax and enjoy the game, win or lose. Once she is no longer playing to win, she relaxes and thus wins. Only by letting go of the desire to enjoy winning a game is she able to enjoy the pleasure of winning a game It may be true that happiness is all that is valuable in many of these cases, but this does not entail that the ends of our desires is always happiness, though it may often be a by-product. Another analogy is that of friendship. One cannot truly enjoy a friendship if the end goal of engaging in the friendship is the joys of the friendship. The desire for happiness alone will often, and perhaps necessarily, alienate desiring individual from achieving the desire. The only way to achieve the desire is to no longer desire it. I think the paradox is a successful refutation of psychological egoistic hedonism, and I hope my analogies illuminate how the paradox is cashed out in everyday examples.

On an interesting and related note, I’ve noticed something about a similar, but somewhat opposite argument from psychological egoistic hedonism. This argument might propose that it is a psychological fact that everyone is motivated by a desire to avoid suffering. It’s interesting this sort of argument does not fall victim to the same type of paradox that a desire for happiness does. Buddhist philosophy proposes that everything suffering is a fact of life and that everything we do is to avoid suffering (forgive me for the very basic and sweeping statements of Buddhist philosophy, I’m not well read on the subject). Further, they claim the solution to avoiding suffering is enlightenment. An interest facet of enlightenment is that to achieve it one cannot desire it, this is a very interesting parallel to the discussion of psychological egoistic hedonism which deserves more consideration.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Philippa Foot: Hypothetical Imperatives System

**This is from guest blogger, Chelsea, R.**

In “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives,” Philippa Foot’s main argument is that morals are not categorical imperatives. Essentially, Ms. Foot makes the claim that morals are not reason-giving, meaning that an action can be morally right, but we are not required to do it. This also means that a person can make a rational decision to withdraw from the moral community. Her conclusion is that morals are hypothetical imperatives, meaning they are the “practical necessity of a possible action as a means to achieving something else which one desires…” (Ethical Theory: An Anthology 138). She sees this alternative to a rigid realist structure a better means of ensuring moral behavior. “…perhaps we should even have less to fear it [defection from the moral cause] if people thought of themselves as volunteers banded together to fight for liberty and justice and against inhumanity and oppression.” (Ethical Theory: An Anthology 143)

Her reasons that lead to the conclusion are based on the problems with a categorically imperative based system of morals. Since these moral principles can be ignored or violated by rational people, they are not categorical at all! She also mentions that our feelings towards morals are not enough to compel us to follow moral rule. Nor are the normative aspects of moral conclusions. Most people would assume that this point of view negates the idea of morals. Morality being no more than hypothetical imperatives reduces it to the level of etiquette and social behaviors.

At first, I was troubled by this. Morals have always been portrayed as this unyielding measure of good behavior. We’ve always been taught to follow these behaviors and ridicule those who don’t. For example, honesty is the best policy is a moral truth. People, communities, and cultures look at liars, thieves, and other dishonest people with disdain. At a very young age, we were taught in pre-school to not steal or tell lies. Our teaching is this matter was reinforced at home when we got grounded for lying about flushing marbles down the toilet. Is this a moral truth because is truly is a universal moral fact, or merely because were taught that the world is this way? More pertinently, do I behave the way I do because I ought to be honest or because I was taught to be honest?

Let’s say I do not steal or lie and avoid dishonest actions because I was taught to avoid those actions. Does this in anyway diminish my standing as an honest person? Or maybe I don’t steal because I know I’ll get caught by my mom and I desire to stay in good standing with her. This type of behavior still commits the moral action, it just has different intentions underneath it.

When I got my tonsils out as child, my mom bought me a stuffed grey cat with a pink ribbon around its neck. My little sister loved it and wanted it super badly. Suppose she didn’t steal from me while I was in my drug-induced slumber because she knew stealing was wrong and one should strive to be moral. A second scenario: suppose she wanted to steal it, but knew I’d smear mustard all over her Pringles if she did. Since she desired that her Pringles stay mustard-free, she decided against stealing my cat. The outcome in both scenarios is the same, but one was a categorical imperative while the other was a hypothetical one. If she didn’t steal my cat solely because it was the right thing to do, is her action more moral than the second scenario? (She actually did steal it and my mom had to buy me a new stuffed cat. I did mustard her Pringles and we still fight about it.) Philippa Foot’s piece brings rise to an even greater question that requires the input of multiple people in the comments: are morals still considered morals without their categorical nature? Or would morals be reduced to behaviors or actions that are good or bad depending on how they impact other people?